Photo courtesy of Notre Dame athletics
How often Michigan and Notre Dame will spar in the future remains anyone’s guess, but the rivalry will always be one of college football’s most iconic.
Over the years, the Wolverines and Fighting Irish have met in a number of thrillers. That includes one that took place on this day 40 years ago.
In a top-15 match-up in South Bend on Sept. 20, 1980, it was the kicker who played the role of hero. Harry Oliver’s 51-yard field goal as time expired was the difference as Notre Dame slipped past Michigan, 29-27.
Setting the Stage
It had been a road team’s series heading into the early-season contest in 1980. The road team had won the last six games dating back to 1908. The Fighting Irish had slipped past Michigan the year prior in Ann Arbor, 12-10.
1980 would be the third straight year the teams would meet following a 35-year hiatus. Notre Dame came in ranked No. 8 after an impressive 31-10 victory over No. 9 Purdue to open the season. Michigan was 1-0 and ranked No. 14 after scoring late to beat Northwestern in the opener, 17-10.
The Waning Moments
The final 3-plus minutes of the contest were nothing short of thrilling, but with under a minute to go, it looked as though the road team would prevail. After Notre Dame took a 26-21 lead on Phil Carter’s short touchdown run, Michigan answered with just 41 seconds remaining.
It looked as though the Wolverines had stole victory when John Wangler’s tipped pass found the hands of tight end Craig Dunaway in the end zone. Michigan however, missed the 2-point conversion try. That left the door open for Notre Dame to win the game with a field goal.
Time and the wind were against the Fighting Irish as they took over at their own 20-yard-line. With the help of a controversial pass interference call, it took Notre Dame five plays to march inside the Michigan 35-yard-line.
On his first completion of the day, Notre Dame freshman quarterback Blair Kiel hit Carter to move his team into Michigan territory. His final pass was a 5-yard completion to Tony Hunter, who stepped out of bounds at the 34.
With just four seconds to go, Oliver trotted onto the field to try a 51-yard field goal. The wind wasn’t enough to deter Oliver as his field goal split the uprights with room to spare. Notre Dame had defeated Michigan in South Bend for the first time ever.
Early in the day, it didn’t appear as though late-game heroics would be necessary. Notre Dame led 14-0 behind a second-quarter touchdown from Carter and then a touchdown pass from Mike Courey to Pete Holohan. Before the half was over however, Michigan would draw even.
The Wolverines stormed back with 21 straight points. Wangler threw touchdown passes to Lawrence Ricks and Norm Betts in the second quarter before Stan Edwards gave the Wolverines their first lead of the game in the third on a 3-yard touchdown run.
After giving up 21 straight points, the Notre Dame defense responded. Notre Dame’s Josh Krimm returned a Wangler interception 49 yards later in the third quarter, but Oliver’s missed extra point allowed Michigan to maintain a 21-20 lead. It’s safe to say that Oliver would redeem himself.
The loss derailed any national championship hopes that Michigan may have had, but its Big Ten dreams were still intact. The Wolverines lost a week later to South Carolina at home, but won their final nine games. Michigan finished No. 4 in the final polls after a 23-6 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl.
As for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish would eventually ascend to No. 1. After tying Georgia Tech the second week in November, Notre Dame closed the season on a 2-game skid with losses to USC and then eventual national champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Through the years, Notre Dame and Michigan have played some memorable games. For the faithful in South Bend, few were as thrilling as the 1980 contest at Notre Dame Stadium. It happened on this day four decades ago.